Cracker needs to remain priority

Sometimes it seems as if economic development in the Ohio Valley is a one step forward, two – or three – steps back process. But after a decades-long adjustment of the type common to many Rust Belt regions, it may well be time for the Northern Panhandle and East Ohio to anticipate more consistent progress.

Plenty of realism was included in presentations during the Wheeling Economic Outlook Conference at Oglebay Park last week. The event, sponsored in part by this newspaper, brought together economic development specialists, along with analysts from West Virginia University.

People have left our area in droves during the past few decades. John Deskins, director of the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research, pointed out the Wheeling Metropolitan Statistical Area has less than 80 percent of the population it did in 1976.

But things are looking up – really. The natural gas drilling and processing industry has helped blunt the impact of the recession in the Northern Panhandle and East Ohio.

Thus far, creation of new gas industry jobs for local residents has been somewhat limited, however. That could change quickly.

Prospects for construction of an ethane cracker plant in this area remain good, Don Rigby, executive director of the Wheeling-based Regional Economic Development Partnership, told those at the conference. Thousands of good new jobs, both at the cracker itself and in spin-off industries, could result from that.

State officials also remain confident a cracker company can be lured to West Virginia.

But a large, relatively flat tract of land is needed for a cracker, and such acreage appears to be in short supply in much of the Northern Panhandle. Clearly, that is a drawback for companies considering cracker plant locations.

It need not be a disqualifier, however. Both local and state economic development officials should attempt to compensate by topping other potential cracker sites in other ways, such as help with infrastructure, job training, tax relief and regulatory reform. Here in West Virginia, all this needs to be accomplished within the limits of tight local and state budgets, of course.

But Rigby is right: The enormous supply of gas available locally, combined with other advantages we can offer, make the Upper Ohio Valley an enticing place for a cracker. It should remain the top priority of economic development officials.